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Decomposition of Set Phrases


Linguistic fusions are set phrases, the meaning of which is understood only from the combination as a whole, as to pull a person's leg or to have something at one's finger tips. The meaning of the whole cannot be derived from the meanings of the component parts. The stylistic device of decomposition of fused set phrases consists in reviving the independent meanings which make up the component parts of the fusion. In other words, it makes each word of the combination acquire its literal meaning which, of course, in many cases leads to the realization of an absurdity. Here is an example of this device as employed by Dickens:

"Mind! I don't mean to say that I know of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have



1 Daily Worker, Feb. 1, 1962.

been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it or ' the Country's done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat emphatically that Marley was as dead as a door-nail." (Dickens)

As is seen in this excerpt, the fusion 'as dead as a door-nail', which simply means completely dead, is decomposed by being used in a different structural pattern. This causes the violation of the generally recognized meaning of the combination which has grown into a mere emotional intensifier. The reader, being presented with the parts of the unit, becomes aware of the meanings of the parts, which, be it repeated, have little in common with the meaning of the whole. When, as Dickens does, the unit is re-established in its original form, the phrase acquires a fresh vigour and effect, qualities important in this utterance because the unit itself was meant to carry the strongest possible proof that the man was actually dead.

Another example from the same story:

"Scrooge had often heard it said that money had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now."

The bowels (guts, intestines) were supposed to be the seat of the emotions of pity and compassion. But here Dickens uses the phrase 'to have no bowels' in its literal meaning: Scrooge is looking at Marley's ghost and does not see any intestines.

In the sentence "It was raining cats and dogs, and two kittens and a puppy landed on my window-sill" (Chesterton) the fusion 'to rain cats and dogs' is freshened by the introduction of "kittens and a puppy," which changes the unmotivated combination into a metaphor which in its turn is sustained.

The expression 'to save one's bacon' means to escape from injury or loss. Byron in his "Don Juan" decomposes this unit by setting it against the word hog in its logical meaning:

"But here I say the Turks were much mistaken,

Who hating hogs, yet wish'd to save their bacon."

Byron particularly favoured the device of simultaneous materialization of two meanings: the meaning of the whole set phrase and the independent meanings of its components, with the result that the independent meanings unite anew and give the whole a fresh significance.

Here is a good example of the effective use of this device. The poet mocks at the absurd notion of idealists who deny the existence of every kind of matter whatsoever:

"When Bishop Berkley said: "there was no matter"

And proved itó'twas no matter what he said."





Date: 2015-12-18; view: 1932

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